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Afghanistan's history as a country spans little more than two centuries, although it has contributed to the greatness of many great Central Asian empires. As with much of the region, the rise and fall of political power has been inextricably tied to the rise and fall of religions.

It was in Afghanistan that the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism began in the 6th century BCE. Later, Buddhism spread west from India to the Bamiyan Valley, where it remained strong until the 10th century AD. The eastward sweep of Islam reached Afghanistan in the 7th century AD, and today the vast majority of Afghanis are Muslim.

Between 1220 and 1223, Genghis Khan tore through the country, reducing Balkh, Heart, Ghazni and Bamiyan to rubble. After damage was repaired, Timur swept through in the early 1380s and reduced the region to rubble again. Timur's reign ushered in the golden Timurid era, when poetry, architecture and miniature painting reached their zenith.

Timur's fourth son, Shah Rukh, built shrines, mosques and medressas throughout Khorasan, from Mashad, in modern-day Iran, to Balkh. Heart continued to prosper under Sultan Hussain Baykara (died 1506), producing such great Central Asian poets as Jami and Alisher Navoi.

The rise of the Great Mogul empire again lifted Afghanistan to heights of power. Babur had his capital in Kabul in 1512, but as the Moguls extended their power into India, Afghanistan went from being the centre of the empire to merely a peripheral part of it. In 1774, with European forces eroding the influence declining Moguls on the Indian subcontinent, the kingdom of Afghanistan was founded.

The 19th century was a period of often comic-book confrontation with the British, who were afraid of the effects of unruly neighbours on their great Indian colony. The rise of tensions and the weakness of the Afghan kingdom resulted in some remarkably unsuccessful and bloody wars being fought on extremely flimsy pretexts. The first, between 1839 and 1842, saw the British garrison almost totally wiped out while retreating in the Khyber pass - out of 16,000 persons, only one man survived. The British managed to re-occupy Kabul and carried out a bit of razing and burning to show who was boss, but this again was short-lived.

Following local wars, from 1878 to 1880, Afghanistan agreed to become more or less a protectorate of the British, happily accepted an annual payment to keep things in shape and agreed to a British resident in Kabul. No sooner had the diplomatic mission been installed in Kabul, however, than all its members were murdered. This time the British decided to keep control over Afghanistan's external affairs, but to leave the internal matters strictly to the Afghans themselves.

In 1893 the British drew Afghanistan's eastern boundaries along the so-called Durand Line, neatly partitioning many Pathan tribes into what today is Pakistan. This has been a cause of Afghan-Pakistani strife for many years, and is the reason the Afghans refer to the western part of Pakistan as Pashtunistan.

From WWI onwards Afghanistan's trade was tilted heavily towards the USSR. Soviet foreign aid to Afghanistan far outweighed Western assistance. Only in tourism did the West have a major influence on the country. Turkish-style reforms failed and the country remained precariously unstable for decades. The post-war kingdom ended in 1973 when the king - a Pathan, like most of those in power - was neatly overthrown while away in Europe. His 'progressive' successors were hardly any more progressive than he had been, but the situation under them was far better than that which was to follow.

After the bloody pro-Moscow revolution that took place in 1978, Afghanistan rapidly deteriorated into turmoil and confusion. Its pro-communist, anti-religious government was far out of step with the strongly Islamic popular movements in neighbouring Iran and Pakistan, and soon the ever-volatile Afghan tribes had the countryside up in arms. A second revolution brought in a government that leaned even more heavily on Soviet support and the country took another lurch towards anarchy. The USSR decided that enough was enough. Another 'popular' revolution took place in 1979, and a Soviet puppet government was installed in Kabul, with what looked like half the Soviet army lined up behind it.

An Islamic jihad (holy war) was called and seven mujaheddin factions emerged. The Soviets soon found themselves mired in what later became known as 'Russia's Vietnam'. They had the advantage of short supply lines, no organised protests from home and a divided enemy but, divided or not, the Afghan mujaheddin were every bit as determined as the Viet Cong.

The war ground on through the 1980s. Afghan tribal warriors remained disorganised and badly trained but to their determination and undoubted bravery they also began to add modern weaponry; the CIA pumped up to US$700 million a year into the conflict in one of the largest covert operations in history. Soon the Soviet regime held only the cities, which were cut off as road convoys were ambushed and aircraft brought down with surface-to-air missiles. In the late 1980s Gorbachev's perestroika (restructuring) allowed the Russian people to say what they wanted. They wanted out.

The decade-long war had cost the Soviets over 15,000 men, produced a wave of nationalism in the Central Asian republics and contributed significantly to the collapse of the USSR. More than a million Afghans lay dead and 6.2 million people, over half the world's refugee population, had fled the country. Afghanistan, once again, was reduced to rubble.

The Soviet withdrawal in 1989 weakened the Russian-backed government of President Najibullah. In an attempt to end the civil war, Najibullah proposed a government of national unity, but the mujaheddin declined. In April 1992 Najibullah was ousted; a week later fighting erupted between rival mujaheddin factions in Kabul. An interim president was installed and replaced two months later by Burhanuddin Rabbani, a founder of the country's Islamic political movement. The fighting continued, doing more damage than the Soviet occupation.

The two bitter rivals were, however, forced into an alliance in May 1996 by the spectacular military successes of a group of Islamic fighters called the Taliban. The Taliban, a group of ethic Pashtuns ('talib' is a Pashto word meaning 'religious student' or 'seeker of knowledge'), were backed by Pakistan. They took Kandahar in 1994 and in September 1996 entered Kabul unopposed - Rabbani and Hekmatyar's forces had already fled north. The former communist president Najibullah was not so foresighted, and the Taliban executed him, stringing up the body for all to see.

The Taliban, despite being pushed further south by the US-backed Northern Alliance in 2001, still control about 50% of Afghanistan's territory, and an inestimable proportion of local hearts and minds. On the international field the Taliban have enjoyed fewer successes. In 1998 the US pulverised parts of south-east Afghanistan with Tomahawk cruise missiles in an attempt to flush out Osama bin Laden, the multi-millionaire Saudi dissident suspected of the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. In retaliation a UN official was murdered in Kabul and all UN staff and aid agencies temporarily pulled out of the country. That same year Iran mobilised up to 100,000 troops on its eastern borders as tension between the two countries (one Sunni, the other Shia) reached a peak after the murder of eight Iranian diplomats in Mazar-i-Sharif. Iranian Ayatollah Khamanei has described the Taliban as 'ignorant and immature'.

Following terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington DC in September 2001, the USA and its allies began military operations in Afghanistan to find terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden and quash the al Qaeda terrorist network he heads, the group responsible for the attacks. Since December 2001 a UN-appointed interim government has brought some stability to Afghanistan; however, although the continued US military campaign has made many gains against the al Qaeda network, Osama bin Laden has still not been tracked down. With no end in sight to the military operations, and ethnic unrest and banditry a serious problem, the outlook for Afghanistan remains bleak. In September 2002 an assassination attempt was made on President Hamid Karzai, highlighting the country's precarious state of affairs. And for the traveller, one of the most interesting, resilient countries in Asia looks likely to remain strictly off limits for some time to come.


Afghanistan is an intensely Muslim country. Although the Blue Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif is one of the most important Shia Muslim shrines, the country is 85% Sunni. The Hazaras of central Afghanistan form the bulk of the Shias, and as such have strong links to Iran. The country has historically been a great centre of Sufism.

In 1959, Afghan leadership stopped enforcing the seclusion and veiling of women, something that the Holy Qu'ran is often interpreted to require. However, the Taliban's accession to power has brought back the burqua with a vengeance. Afghan women are flogged or otherwise punished for refusing to wear the shuttlecock-shaped accouterment, or for being on the street without the company of a male relative, or for painting their nails. Women can only attend single-sex hospitals (of which there are few) and are not allowed to seek employment or education. Female visitors to Afghanistan should take great care: dress even more carefully than you would in Iran, keep a man close by whenever you take to the street, and do not enter mosques.

Afghanistan's Islamic heritage is also the basis of its famous hospitality: if you - male or female, Muslim or not - are invited into a home, expect to be treated with a respect not often understood in the West. Though a family may clearly be putting themselves under financial strain to provide a meal for you (the honoured guest), refusing the invitation or offering to bring food would be a grave insult. A gift of fruit, flowers or something small from home would be appreciated, however.

Afghanistan's geographical position - for centuries crisscrossed by armies, empires and trade routes - combined with its varied geological terrain have given rise to the great diversity of foods, arts, languages and traditions that make up this country's cultural heritage. Unfortunately, many of the country's artistic treasures have been surreptitiously sold on the global market, while 2001 saw the destruction of the Great Buddhas in Bimiyan by the Taliban. The Afghan people have, in some ways, sacrificed such luxuries in order to survive. However, no country with as rich and plentiful a heritage as Afghanistan could forget this source of strength and expression. If and when this country is blessed with a little peace, expect to be dazzled by its contributions to the world's culture once again.

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